Pa. volunteers reach out to asylum-seekers

York residents provide necessities to those new to U.S.

December 05, 2005|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

YORK, Pa. -- They set out for the life-risking journey like generations of immigrants past. One says she escaped an abusive husband in Saudi Arabia, another fled torture in China and, all on his own, a mentally retarded 16-year-old from Guinea took flight after his political activist father was killed.

Unlike many of their predecessors, their introduction to America was by way of a jail cell - the result of 1996 law sending tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to U.S. detention centers, prisons and jails. Perhaps more unsettling for these would-be immigrants is that, upon release, some are turned out into communities alone, with no place to go and no legal right to work.

But here, in a blue-collar town nestled in a southern Pennsylvania valley, nearly 200 such asylum-seekers have found refuge and support from an unlikely group of activists.

Since post-Sept. 11 border-tightening and other recent legislation, activists project that the number of immigrant detainees will swell. It's why organizers at this place of refuge, known as the International Friendship House, are expanding.

Enraged by the treatment of people they saw as persecuted innocents, a hodgepodge of York residents - homemakers, military personnel, factory workers and ministers - converted a crumbling 105-year-old brick home on a gentrifying corner of the city into the International Friendship House.

Opened in 1997, it is one of a handful of entities in the country providing housing, food, health care, counseling and advocacy to asylum-seekers released from prison. Last month, organizers acquired a giant warehouse next-door, space they hope to convert into additional housing, a day care center and clinic.

"If you come to an airport and say you're fleeing persecution in Iran, our government says, `Welcome to America; here's your jail cell,'" said Craig Trebilcock, an immigration attorney and board member of the Golden Vision Foundation, which runs the York house and relies on donations for an operating budget that was about $250,000 last year.

"These people, who are among the most vulnerable, are now being abused a second time," he said. "Our government sees them as some kind of unsavory liability. We took up the cause because we could not stand by and let something worse happen to them."

Most immigrants arrive at the house after being released from York County Prison, which for years has had a contract with federal immigration authorities to hold detainees alongside criminals. In the late 1990s, the numbers grew to between 700 and 800 detainees in a total inmate population of about 2,000, according to Warden Tom Hogan.

Today, the prison is one of the largest facilities on the East Coast for immigration detainees, dedicating courtrooms, attorneys, judges and a staff of 40 detention and deportation officers. The approximately 600 male and female immigration detainees include people convicted of crimes and awaiting deportation, as well as asylum-seekers with no criminal records. Typically, they are brought there after arriving at airports on the East Coast, from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to New York's JFK.

Nowhere to go

Most Friendship House residents arrive immediately after release from York's prison, sometimes with only the clothes on their backs. Some have cases pending, while others have been granted asylum but have nowhere to go. And because it can take months for asylum-seekers to be granted work permits, many have no source of income.

As many as 17 people can live in the old house's small shared rooms, and several families are able to use the next-door apartments. Decorating the main house's old walls are ethnic art and photos of former residents from such countries as Liberia, Togo, Haiti, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka.

On a bulletin board is a photo of Malik Jarno, 20, with actress Angelina Jolie, who has been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees since 2001. Jarno, who escaped Guinea in 2001 after his father was killed by government forces, was placed in several prisons and released from York in 2003. His case, which became emblematic of the fate of thousands of children who enter the country alone and are detained in U.S. prisons, attracted activists and members of Congress who rallied for his release.

Jarno - who is mildly mentally retarded, according to his attorneys - is waiting at the Friendship House for federal officials to decide on his asylum petition. To the delight of Harriet Miller, the group's executive director, he receives A's and B's at the local high school.

Like a den mother, Miller, 64, keeps tabs on nearly everyone who has passed through the house. She throws mini-reunions at her farm and exchanges letters with the handful of couples who wed after meeting at the house.

Flipping through photo albums, Miller remembers each former resident, the details of their horrifying stories seared in her memory.

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